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If there is one song that encapsulates the psychologically disturbed brilliance of Brian Wilson at his creative peak, it is “Surf’s Up”. He wrote it in 1966 while sitting at the piano at home in California in his “sandpit” — he liked to feel the sand between his toes — at a time when he was deteriorating mentally. He was suffering symptoms of what would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar schizoaffective disorder, as well as embarking on a long period of drug abuse. The song took about half an hour to write.
“Surf’s Up” first surfaced in a 1967 CBS television special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, presented by Leonard Bernstein, with Wilson singing it solo at the piano. But then the song disappeared and began to acquire a special mystique. The album for which it was intended, Smile, remained unfinished for decades.
In the CBS film, Bernstein said he was “fascinated by the strange and compelling scene called ‘pop music’ ”, and rightly so: this was a period when pop was beginning to take itself seriously, pushing boundaries. In 1965 The Beatles had released their ground-breaking Rubber Soul album, launching a transatlantic to-and-fro with The Beach Boys, who responded with Pet Sounds, which in turn was released around the same time as The Beatles’ Revolver. But then Wilson became mired in the quicksand of Smile.
Part of the problem with the album was Wilson’s decision to ditch fellow Beach Boy Mike Love as lyricist and hire the young composer, arranger and lyricist Van Dyke Parks. Parks’ lyrics for Smile were dazzling but often so impressionistic as to be almost abstract, and Love made his feelings clear about what he called, derisively, Parks’ “acid alliteration”. Alongside fractious studio sessions, Wilson was under pressure from the record company, Capitol, to write more hits. He began to descend further into isolation. By May 1967 Smile had been abandoned. On June 1 Sgt Pepper was released. Game over.
In 1971 The Beach Boys finally released “Surf’s Up” on an album of the same name. Fleshed out with a band, brass and harmonies, the song was beguiling and enigmatic; another “pocket symphony” to follow 1966’s revolutionary “Good Vibrations”. Wilson, of course, never actually surfed. Parks’ lyric was catching a different kind of wave, the emerging 1960s counterculture, the rise of the baby boomers, and the phrase “surf’s up” arrives at a point in the song where it is marking a transition from old to new, from age to youth: “Surf’s Up/Aboard a tidal wave/Come about hard and join/The young and often spring you gave”. Later, the lyric echoes William Wordsworth: “The child is father of the man.”
Wilson went on to spend decades in the wilderness, but in 2002 he was well enough to launch a tour of the UK on which he performed, in its entirety, Pet Sounds. With his crack ensemble of players and singers, he then went back into the studio to complete Smile, which was released in 2004.
As an album, Smile doesn’t quite hold together; it’s no Sgt Pepper. But “Surf’s Up” is easily its finest moment, a little masterpiece of shifting keys and tempi, and it’s no surprise that few have attempted to cover it. There’s a hypnotically strange, woozy 2001 rendition by art-punk singer David Thomas and Two Pale Boys. Jimmy Webb, David Crosby and Vince Gill sang it faithfully at a 2001 All Star Tribute to Brian Wilson in New York. But that’s about it.
Discussions about the finest version, therefore, centre on the recordings made by Wilson and The Beach Boys, of which there are many, three alone on The Smile Sessions box set (released in 2011). One such features Wilson alone at his piano in 1967. Listen to his left hand; he seems to make the notes bend. And listen to the voice, both fragile and pure. It’s exquisite.
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For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Alain Dister/Dalle/Retna Pictures
This story was amended on January 28 2015 to correct the picture caption